Let’s break away from our focus on the here and now and answer a deliciously big question.
When will we reach the peak of humanity?
When will planet Earth see the maximum number of human inhabitants? What does this mean for Australia?
The question is obviously important. Our penchant for growth may well stem from the seemingly endless increase in human population. If there are more of us, we need more resources, more space, more of everything.
Whether the world’s population increases or decreases depends on the number of babies born and the number of people who die each year.
Even as our global population continues to age as better healthcare and fewer wars increase average life expectancy, the total number of annual deaths will only continue to rise on an aging planet.
While we expected around 59 million deaths worldwide for 2020, COVID-19 upped that number at least three million, according to the World Health Organization.
The number of babies born each year is linked to a single number, the total fertility rate. This figure describes the average number of children born to a woman during her lifetime. If the global fertility rate is below the replacement level of 2.1, the world’s population declines.
The reason the replacement rate is not 2.0 children is that we have to take into account infant and child mortality as well as gender imbalances.
Conventional wisdom has long suggested that we humans will continue to increase our population until we create famine and suffering on unimaginable scales.
Good news! This is not what the world will look like based on current demographic projections.
I show the two best-known global population forecasts in this graph. By far the most cited demographic projection is the “middle variant” of the United Nations Population Division. He assumes that we reach humanity’s peak at just under 11 billion around the year 2100. This suggests that we need to feed, house and educate an additional three billion people.
80 years from now we face the challenge of a declining global population, a world of abandoned villages, stagnant mega-cities and bustling metropolises.
The “middle variant” is just one of many scenarios published by the UN. Their low estimate has the world capped at 10 billion by 2080 and their extreme scenario has the world peaking at 12.7 billion by 2100.
Less hot bodies?
Nowadays, more and more demographers disagree with the UN population projections.
The Wittgenstein Center for Demography and Global Human Capital at the University of Vienna produces the second most cited set of global population forecasts.
According to the Austrians, we will reach the peak of humanity by 2070 at just 9.4 billion.
More and more researchers are finding that even Wittgenstein’s predictions are too high. The Lancet recently published an article suggesting that we will see a population peak of less than 10 billion people by the mid-2060s.
If you are under 40, there is a good chance that you will see the peak of humanity in your lifetime.
Given that we have finite resources on this planet, it is a relief to hear that we will have fewer mouths to feed. To understand the challenges posed by the shrinking population, let’s look at Japan today or China in five years.
Japan reached its peak of 128 million people ten years ago and has been steadily declining since. Japan was very lucky to have become rich before the population began to age and retire at a rapid rate.
To counter the double blow of aging and shrinking, Japan has invested heavily in robotics and automation, changed its social contract to encourage women to stay in the workforce after marriage, and even changed its policies. restrictive migration patterns – Japan is now home to more than two million migrants.
China will face similar challenges as Japan, but at a much higher rate. In about five to eight years, China will peak at just under 1.5 billion people, before starting to decline at a rate of around five million people per year.
The problem for China is that it won’t be as rich as Japan was when it began to shrink, and hundreds of millions of elderly Chinese are facing retirement into poverty.
This Chinese demographic cliff is why the country’s rulers will do anything to keep GDP growth high – it will not be enough to counter demographic forces, however.
The one-child policy will haunt China. Nations like China will need to impose high taxes and lower living standards on their youth to fund an increasingly aging society.
Young Chinese people will therefore seek more and more to emigrate, will seek younger, more agile nations where their economic security can be guaranteed.
Fight for talent
An aging and shrinking planet will bring about a major population reshuffle. We will see the international war for talent intensify. Countries that manage to stay young by importing workers in their 20s and 30s will be the winners.
Retirement planning will become increasingly important. Pension schemes, where each worker has their own pension compartment, will become increasingly common around the world.
Demographically, Australia is well positioned to succeed in a shrinking and aging world. We have plenty of room to accommodate more young people to mitigate the effects of an aging population, and we already have a decent national pension scheme in place (which will need to be changed to work for the poorest quarter of the country as well).
In this scenario, Australia will grow even as the planet shrinks. We will become much more culturally diverse and that suggests we need to be much more proactive in helping our newcomers assimilate.
On the other hand, we might also have to become more selective and establish strict language requirements to ensure that all residents have a common language.
We will also need to be realistic about the likely magnitude of future population growth and plan accordingly. Over the past two decades, we have failed to develop infrastructure and social programs at the same rate as our people.
We would be fools to repeat the same mistakes.
Demographer Simon Kuestenmacher is co-founder of The Demographics Group. His columns, media commentary and public speaking focus on current socio-demographic trends and their impact on Australia. Follow Simon on Twitter Where LinkedIn for daily data information.